I've never been threatened with arrest, nor come even close, until I went to the North Carolina state capital to cover the protests that activists have led every week in Raleigh for the last three months.
The protests are called “Moral Mondays” and are staged by a coalition led by the NAACP and other progressive groups to speak out against the Republican legislature that they say is working behind closed doors to push an extreme agenda.
But Moral Mondays have also attracted a grassroots collection of teachers and students, retirees, stay-at-home moms, and blue-collar workers from across the political spectrum who told me Monday the same thing I heard from Tea Party protesters in 2009—that they did not recognize the government representing them and that they were tired of doing nothing about it.
In a state that had come to be known as a swing state in the Deep South, which Barack Obama won in 2008 but lost narrowly in 2012, the first Republican legislature in more than 100 years has moved to cut funding for public education, unemployment, and Medicaid; added new requirements and funding for voter-ID laws; eliminated the earned-income tax credit and worked to loosen laws limiting fracking in the state. Earlier this year, the legislature added major new restrictions to abortion services, first as a rider on a bill outlawing Sharia and then as a clause on a motorcycle-safety bill.
Linda Willey and Deborah Johnson drove 200 miles from the Outer Banks to Raleigh Monday morning. Both had been arrested at previous rallies but said they felt they needed to be back at the capital again.
"I'm really concerned by what's going on in Raleigh and by the attitudes of the legislature," Willey said. "I want to live in a state that has good educational opportunities, has well-paid teachers, and clean drinking water. Education is valued in this state, and we're losing that. This is taking us backward."
Willey said the protests "give me a positive way to say how upset I am. I don't want to argue about politics, I don't want to fight with anybody. I want to do what's morally right."
Deborah Johnson saw her friend's posts on Facebook about Moral Mondays and decided she needed to be there, too.
"We may not all agree on the issues, but the fact remains [the legislators] did not ask us. It's like we don't matter," she said. "I guess they think we're all stupid and we're not seeing them and we're just going to sit back and not do anything, but I'm not sitting back."
Before the protests, the women went to Christian Faith Baptist Church, where the Rev. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, led a training session on civil disobedience and instructed protesters on the finer points of getting arrested. But he also put the agenda of the North Carolina legislature, especially the new voter-ID laws, in what he saw as the context of history for his audience, which was mostly white.
"We know we are in a war for the ballot," he said. "Raleigh is our Selma. The general assembly is our Edmund Pettus Bridge."
Taking a page from the civil-rights protests of the 1960s, Barber has helped to orchestrate a choreographed ritual at Moral Mondays, in which more than 900 people have been led away in handcuffs so far after rallies outside the state capital.
I watched Monday's protest with Leonardo Williams, a 32-year-old schoolteacher from Durham, who said he had been to a dozen Moral Mondays to protest the cuts to education funding, reductions that he says will devastate the students he's worked his entire career to teach and mentor.
I spoke to Williams in a hallway as police began to arrest protesters in the building's atrium who wore green arm bands to signify that they planned to be arrested. But a young woman, another schoolteacher, walked quickly around a corner into the hallway where we stood. "I'm going!" she told a state-police officer, who had been following her. He pointed his finger, first at her and then at the three of us. "Exit the premises or you will be arrested," he said as he walked toward us.
We looked at each other and headed for the doors. I'd always thought that in a moment like that, I might be a little more Norma Rae–meets–Erin Brockovich, but I really wasn't. And in truth, we all had our reasons for doing as we were told.
I had no intention of becoming a story when I was there to cover one. The young teacher was a mother of two children who needed dinner that night. Williams said he literally could not afford to be arrested after six years of pay freezes in the North Carolina public schools, coupled with rent that never did him the same favor.
But more than 70 people were arrested Monday at the capital, including Jeanette Ford, who had come from Durham to join the effort. "Others have stood up for me when I could not," she said. "This is a time I can stand up for others."
The House and Senate are scheduled to hold a final vote on the state budget this week. Moral Mondays continue next week.